SANTA FE, N.M. — Ask Angela “Spence” Pacheco about the cases she’s worked as a prosecutor, and the one she mentions first is a grim piece of northern New Mexico history.
Pacheco was the Española prosecutor for the District Attorney’s Office when Ricky Abeyta, then 28, shot and killed a State Police officer, a Rio Arriba County deputy and five others, including Abeyta’s estranged girlfriend and a six-month-old baby, on Jan. 26, 1991. The massacre took place in Chimayó.
“It was mind-boggling,” said Pacheco, 66, while talking about her career Wednesday, the day before her retirement after seven years as district attorney and just a month shy of the 25th anniversary of the Abeyta homicides.
“Overall, it’s been a good career,” she said. “It’s a career that has let me take care of my community, which is my family.”
And overall, she said, her work as been fun. But not on the day of the Abeyta murders.
Coming down the mountain after a day of skiing, Pacheco saw police cars speeding north out of Santa Fe. She got called to the scene in Chimayó soon after she arrived home.
“Two of those people who were killed, I knew well,” she recalled. “It was very difficult to see that, to say nothing of the other victims, which was horrible.”
“For someone like me who’s never been in battle – you know, I’d been to crime scenes before where you have a deceased person – but to see seven dead bodies is so unnerving. It does something to your psyche.” She was assigned the emotionally draining job of sticking with the slain State Police officer’s father and had to keep him away from his son’s body at the crime scene.
Even the team from the District Attorney’s Office took up weapons during the search for Abeyta. “We all had guns ourselves,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going on.” Abeyta, a carpenter, turned himself in after a 24-hour manhunt. After a long trial, the jury convicted Abeyta in all seven deaths in an instance of out-of-control domestic violence but couldn’t agree on giving him the death penalty. He was sentenced to 146 years in prison.
“That was not a natural or normal experience, and that’s one reason that case will never leave me,” Pacheco said. “And I will tell you that for about 30 days, and that’s no exaggeration, at night I was afraid to be alone. People will tell you it was PTSD. But then I got past it.”
Pacheco handled evidence and worked with witnesses in the case. “The one part that I was not active in was the death penalty part,” she said. “Because I wasn’t comfortable with the death penalty. I had no problem with everything else and locking him up for the rest of his life. But I had a difficult time arguing for the death penalty, so I had nothing to do with it.”
“It has a lot to do with my Catholicism,” Pacheco said.
Faith plays big role
Pacheco, during a wide-ranging interview at her office near the downtown courthouse, cited her faith “and a very deep spirituality” as big reasons she’s spent her career in public service, first as a social worker and then mostly as a prosecutor after she earned a law degree in 1987.
“Also, I grew up in the 1960s, during Vatican II, and President Kennedy is asking what you can do for your country and all of us were caught up in that. You know, it was all about public service.”
And she’s old-school Santa Fe, born and raised “about four blocks from where we’re sitting right now,” she said. She said she “represents the old Santa Fe families, the old northern New Mexico families. That’s where I come from, my beliefs, my traditions, and it translates into public service.”
“Pacheco Street is named after my father’s family. Dan Gaspar is named after my great-great-grandfather, who was on the Ortiz side, my mother’s side.” Her sister, Ana Pacheco, is a noted local historian.
Angela Pacheco was baptized at the Santuario de Guadalupe, where she still attends Mass, went to the old Loretto Academy and graduated from the College of Santa Fe in 1971. “All Catholic education,” she said. “That’s what I’m saying. My Catholicism plays a very large role in my life.”
She acknowledged with a smile that her Catholicism “does create issues” for one big part of her life. She’s been with Peg A. Tassett – also a former social worker who retired from the state Corrections Department as a psychologist – for 25 years. They adopted siblings Cheyenne, now 24, and Joseph, 27, whom the couple raised since ages three and six.
Tassett and Pacheco are married and in fact were among the first gay couples to be wed with a state marriage license obtained in New Mexico. They were there during the single day in 2004 when then-Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap bucked the legal system and issued a few dozen licenses for same-sex couples, before being shut down by a restraining order.
The Catholic church does not condone gay marriage or homosexuality, although Pope Francis has famously declared “Who am I to judge?” about gays who “search for the Lord.”
“I believe in the basic theology and the sacraments,” Pacheco said of being a practicing gay Catholic. “Some of the church teachings are man-made. And those are the ones I have a conflict with.”
Pacheco’s personal life has never been an issue in her professional career, she said. “Why should it be? How is it going to stop me from doing my job? I’m not going to treat somebody any differently.”
She decided to become a lawyer, she said, after a tragic incident she experienced as a social worker, when she was running an alcohol treatment program for teenagers.
The lawyer for a young man in the program went to children’s court and argued the teen should be released from treatment. “We kept saying, ‘He’s not ready, he’s not ready’,” Pacheco said. But the lawyer convinced a judge to release the young client.
“That weekend he was involved in a vehicle homicide and killed someone,” she said. “And I was so angry about that that I said I’m going to law school because I want to be able to fight back.”
Defends court system
Pacheco, a Democrat, is a staunch defender of the criminal justice system, rejecting the popular view that it favors the wealthy and is infected with racial and class bias. “There are times I take offense at that,” she said.
“It’s a good system,” she said. “It works.”
“It never feels good or feels like it’s working for victims of crime and their families and in many instances for the criminal defendant and his or her family. Because from the outside it can appear to be very complicated and inefficient.
“But if you’re in the middle of it, we know what’s going on and we understand it and things are happening the way they should be happening.”
She did say both prosecutors and public defenders are overworked and need more funding. Public defenders may be outspent by private defense attorneys and be torn among many clients who are part of a heavy caseload, but “it has nothing to do with their skill,” she said.
Part of her job, Pacheco said, is getting “beat up” when a difficult case comes along.
There have been a couple of such cases in the recent past. When police filed charges against a middle-school teacher and her principal after the teacher threw three paperback books at unruly students in April, some thought Pacheco didn’t act quickly enough to dismiss the charges. After a week of public debate, she threw the case out, adding that the police had been “technically correct” in filing charges under wording of state child abuse statutes.
Last January, a grand jury to which Pacheco presented evidence found that State Police officer Oliver Wilson was justified when he shot and killed motorist Jeanette Anaya in Santa Fe in 2014.
Anaya, who had an outstanding warrant on a minor offense, drove away and led Wilson on a chase through town after Wilson tried to pull her over for erratic driving, although his dash-cam later showed no unusual driving or traffic violation by Anaya. The officer managed to use a bumping maneuver to get her to stop, then fired 16 shots and killed her after she backed up in his direction. The Santa Fe police had refused to join in the chase.
Pacheco said at the time that she was surprised at the decision in Wilson’s favor by the grand jury, which hears the evidence behind closed doors and then renders judgment. Some in the legal community questioned whether Pacheco had adequately presented the case.
“We can’t create evidence,” Pacheco said. “The evidence is what the evidence is. The witnesses testify what they’re going to testify. We can’t control what people say, and the people (on the jury) make their decision based on that.”
In officer Wilson’s case, “again, it’s 12 people making a decision.”
“I accept that and thank them for their service. Do I agree with it? Not necessarily. But I have to live with it and I’m the one that’s going to get beat up. But that comes with the job.”
She said that when she knows about a grand jury decision in a controversial case the day before it’s made public, “That night, I don’t sleep, because I know I’m going to get beat up the very next day. And its isn’t fun getting beat up. No matter what I do, everyone’s going to be mad, but it does not influence what I’m going to do.”
Asked if a private grand jury proceeding is the best way to review police shootings, Pacheco said it’s the only process available under current New Mexico law. She noted that it was her custom to call a news conference in such cases and explain what evidence and testimony had been presented.
Pacheco also said she never chalked up convictions or acquittals as wins and losses. “For me personally, when I go to trial and there’s a conviction, I don’t view that as a success. For me personally, I view that as I did my job and justice has been served.”
Skiing, and some trial work
In retirement, Pacheco plans to spend more time on the ski slopes and “to keep my skill set up,” will volunteer to serve as a special prosecutor when other district attorneys have conflicts of interest.
Her advice to Jennifer Padgett, a former staff prosecutor under Pacheco whom Gov. Susana Martinez named to serve out the rest of Pacheco’s second district attorney term through 2016? “The successes belong to the staff and the failures belong to the district attorney,” she said
As for judicial branch politics, Pacheco said: “District attorneys and judges, we’re all geeks.”
“But we’re forced to run for office to do the jobs we like. For us, it’s really not about politics. For us, it’s the love of the profession.
“We love the law, we love the profession,” she said, “and in order to do it, we’re forced to run for office.”